HEALTH -- May 25, 2011 at 12:11 PM ET
Study: 1 in 5 Young Adults Suffers From Hypertension
If you're a young adult, chances are high blood pressure isn't high on your list of things to worry about. But a new study by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill suggests maybe it should be.
They found that nearly one in five young adults between the ages of 24 and 32 has high blood pressure, also referred to as hypertension.
"This is a sleeping epidemic among young adults because high blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke," said Dr. Kathleen Mullan Harris, co-author of the study.
Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the U.S.; strokes rank third.
This is the first study of its kind, surveying more than 14,000 young adults from different backgrounds across the country. Other studies have concentrated on older adult populations -- in which hypertension is more common -- or have included only a small number of young adults, making it difficult to draw conclusions about that age group.
Those studies have found a third of all adults suffer from hypertension. And the risks increase as you age -- that figure rises to 60 percent of all adults over age 65.
Getting high blood pressure under control early on is key to preventing chronic illness later in life, according to Dr. Harris. "Young adults and the medical professionals they visit shouldn't assume they're not old enough to have high blood pressure. This is a condition that leads to chronic illness, premature death and costly medical treatment."
The findings were published Wednesday in the journal Epidemiology.
We asked Dr. Harris, who is the principal investigator and director of the The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, funded by the National Institute of Health, the five of the questions that topped our list about the results.
Answers have been edited for space and clarity.
NewsHour: Were you surprised with the number of young people with hypertension?
Dr. Kathleen Mullan Harris: We were very surprised. Most people tend to think of young people as healthy. What's especially alarming is that almost half did not know that they had high blood pressure -- only 11% were aware of it.
High blood pressure does not have any outward symptoms, but it causes permanent damage to the brain, the heart, the kidneys and your eyes. And so it might be years off until chronic illness sets in, but it forebodes future costs in terms of health.
NewsHour: What's causing this high rate of blood pressure in young adults?
Dr. Harris: A modern lifestyle. Young people in particular are more likely to have a diet that has fast food in it, with high intake of sodium as well as additional calories from sugar drinks. Another risk factor is a lack of physical exercise.
I think that for young adults, this is a transitional period in their life state, they're just coming out of a fairly active period in adolescence, they're in college or starting jobs, which does not give them as much time to be active. We also think the obesity epidemic is probably an important driver in this trend.
NewsHour: Why is it important for young people to know that they have high blood pressure?
Dr. Harris: They can do something about it now before permanent damage starts to set in.
It's really about a healthy lifestyle. Try to be active, engage in physical activity on a regular basis, have a moderate diet with less sodium and calories, check alcohol use and quit smoking. These behaviors will set a future lifestyle for the adult years as well.
NewsHour: What does this mean for young people?
Dr. Harris: They need to be aware that they are at risk to high blood pressure and monitor it. They're not going to have chronic illness and heart failure tomorrow or in the next year, or even in the next five years. That's especially worrisome, that damage can be ongoing to their organs without them knowing it.
Older adults will tend to be screened by their physician at some point and have their blood pressure checked. But young adults who feel no symptoms and feel healthy are less likely to get a regular checkup. There are also other ways to get your blood pressure checked, in drug stores or in gyms.
NewsHour: What about the longer-term implications for this group of people?
Dr. Harris: There are going to be huge increases in chronic illness, in terms of coronary heart disease, heart failure, stroke in particular and kidney disease. And this will be occurring at an earlier and earlier stage of the adult period. So exposure to high blood pressure at a younger age means that the adverse health consequences will be occurring earlier in the life course.
Finding high blood pressure in young people is consistent with other studies out there that have been finding increases, for example, rates of stroke, diabetes and poor kidney functioning. I think these kinds of chronic illnesses are slowly creeping down into the younger ages.